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Getting beyond nice

When Martin Woodroofe interviewed church leaders for his book, Beyond Nice, many told him that churches can be difficult to lead because of their culture of 'nice'.

Oak Hill: A book title encapsulates the message of a book, so why Beyond Nice? Is it because Christians are too nice? Is it that the church is beyond nice? What's the meaning?

Martin Woodroofe: The suggestion of the title is that Christian churches and organisations need to go beyond 'nice'. A lot of the people I interviewed said that sometimes we do not get into managing people effectively because we don't move beyond niceness. We want to have compassionate communities, and that is sometimes interpreted as meaning we should be nice to one another. This can mean that Christian organisations find it hard to confront difficult issues.

If you think about it, we should be great at relationships. We're brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the same faith, we're trying to promote the same thing. We should have a biblical understanding of issues such as accountability, and so we should be really good at all this. And yet what I found, coming from a business background and operating as a church elder, was that we often do not do the relationship side as well as it's done in the secular world. We should be great at it, but often we're not.

The danger is that Christian organisations we can often see quite a high degree of disagreement and disunity. If that goes unchecked, it can lead to splits and other differences. Another major difference between the Christian and the business environments is that in business, there's probably more discipline on people and more clarity about power of the leader.

How complex do you think it is, taking on the leadership of a church? It's not as simple as being a business leader, is it?

Well, the situation is that you've probably trained as a pastor teacher, but alongside that, you've now inherited a significant leadership role. That's a role that's difficult to delegate to anyone else. Ultimately, the community you're pastoring want leadership from you. Volunteers will often be more motivated if they're asked by the pastor than if that's delegated to somebody else. So I think the first thing is that you're carried to the leadership role.

Now some people have a very clear realisation of that and enjoy it, while others are not so comfortable. But there are many positive things you can do to help the organisation you are leading. I think that is vitally important, because I believe we should do this as well as we can.

One of the challenges for a pastor is the complexity of their relationships. So one moment you might be a pastor, another moment you might be a buddy, and the next moment, in staff or volunteer terms, you might be a boss. If we compare it to secular work, I think that adds an element of complexity. So how do you cope with that? I think you have to set boundaries and make clear what's happening in that space and at that time.

How does that work in practice?

Let's take an example. Say a pastor has a performance issue with a member of staff, or with a leading volunteer. If they go into the room and they're trying to play all the notes on the instrument if they're trying to be their friend, their pastor and their boss at the same time, then the messages will be all over the place. So they have to clear the space and say, this is what we're talking about and this is the context of what we're talking about.

It doesn't mean to say that I'm negating my other roles. I'm always your pastor, I'm always supportive. That's always been the background narrative. But at this moment, we're talking about the fact that you don't turn up on time, or that you haven't fulfilled the tasks I've asked you to fulfil, or whatever the issues are.

Of course, the big difference between a business model and churches is that for a lot of the things you do, you are working with volunteers, rather than paid employees. That creates its own challenges, doesn't it?

Yes, but even in the business world you have to attract and motivate people about what you are doing. You might have more levers and sanctions in business, but the people you are leading can still go slow, take their time, obfuscate and so on. But obviously that is multiplied in the volunteering world.

The main issue of working with people is that they really must be inspired by the vision, they must have a passion for it, they must want to align with what you want to do. This becomes much more important when you are working in a community such as the local church, where relationships are so highly valued.

As church leaders, I think we are sometimes too timid. We think we can only ask people to do so much. Whereas actually, with the best volunteers, you can have a good, grown up deal. You can say, 'this is what I'd really like you to do.'

Volunteers do not like micro management. They don't want you to be checking up on them every day, but they do expect you to be interested. It is empowering for them if you say, this is what I want you to do, this is the framework, and the details of how you do it I'll leave with you. And by the way, I'd like us to meet every couple of weeks and discuss how it's going, and so on. My experience is that people like that, because they see it as recognition, rather than being told what to do.

Good volunteers understand what the deal is between you. They get the recognition, they are doing something important for the community, their work is purposeful and they are going to deliver something significant. When they begin to see that, then you often get huge amounts of commitment and energy.

A chapter in your book focuses on the vulnerability of leadership. Why did you give so much space to this area?

I wasn't going to include this issue in the book, but it came about purely as something raised by many of the leaders I spoke to, and in a way it was a bit of a surprise. Vulnerability is generated by a number of things, particularly if you think about pastors. Their work can be their whole life. Many people who are working in different environments can sometimes compartmentalise their life, but being a pastor can take over your whole life. That's not helped by people believing you're accessible all the time.

People will also say things to their pastor in a no-holds-barred way, which means you are sometimes getting the raw email or the raw comment. I think that's often because people are so passionate about their faith. So if the worship, or something said in the sermon really grates on them, they will feed that back in a very direct way.

So how do church leaders cope with all that?

I have seen people adopting all kinds of strategies. There is a one-to-one strategy, where the leader says, I'll take everybody one at a time, and therefore there'll be no kind of critical mass for me to deal with. They think it will be easier to deal with the issues that way. But then, of course, you don't build a team, or a genuinely shared vision.

Sometimes, pastors try to do everything themselves, which is another strategy arising out of vulnerability. They seek to control everything themselves. But that strategy is unsustainable. It doesn't motivate people and it creates a kind of bottleneck.

A third way to cope is to say, there are some very difficult people in the congregation, and therefore I will gravitate towards the people I know who will be friendly and supportive.

How does that play out?

It leads to something you have to guard against all the time anyway, which is leaving people out. People very quickly pick up if you have an inner and an outer core, and they don't like it.

Also, I think that if there is an issue with people and you're not dealing with it, that doesn't mean the issue has gone away. What it leads to is that the people you are ignoring share their discontent with everybody else. So by not tackling the issue, or not building a relationship with the person and coming to some understanding, you're really feeling it offstage.

That's a phenomenon that is quite familiar: people are sharing their unhappiness with everyone but the pastor.

What is the best way to turn that round? What is the way back to health, if you like, from that situation?

From personal experience, some of it is about finding good friends and supporters. And by that I mean people who value you and support you, and who are prepared to tell it as it is. I think it's always good to have a couple of those kind of confidantes. It builds confidence.

It also enables you to talk about the issues you have and get some honest feedback. You need that, because an important factor in what might be happening is that you become blind to what you're doing. That's why all good leaders need people around them who are not afraid to tell them the truth.
martin woodroofe  
Beyond Nice, by Martin Woodroofe, will be published in 2012.  
commentary magazine  
Read Commentary magazine online: click here (PDF, 4.8Mb)  

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